Project-based learning – part two

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This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in May 2016.  This is the second of a two-part article on project-based learning.  You can read the first part here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here


Read PART ONE first

Project-based learning works best when students regard the project as personally meaningful and when it fulfils an educational purpose – in other words, when it is an integral part of the curriculum.

A project can be made personally meaningful if teachers begin by triggering students’ curiosity. In other words, at the start of the first lesson on the project, the teacher uses a “hook” to engage students’ interest and initiate questioning. A hook can be anything: a video, a lively discussion, a guest speaker, a field trip, or a text.

With a compelling project, the reason for the learning becomes clear. A project can also be made personally meaningful to students if the teacher poses a big question that captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, and which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. A big question should be provocative, open and complex. The question can be abstract or concrete, or it can be focused on solving a problem. The big question is the string that binds the project together.

A project can be made personally meaningful to students if students are given some choice about how to conduct the project and present their findings. Indeed, the more choice, the better. Where choice is limited, students can select what topic to study within a general big question or choose how to design, create and present their findings.

In the middle of the choice spectrum, teachers might provide a small menu of options for creative final “products” in order to prevent students from becoming overwhelmed by too many choices. Where choice is broad, students can decide what “products” they will create, what resources they will use, and how they will use their time. Students might also choose their project’s topic and big question.

A project can fulfil an educational purpose if it provides opportunities to build metacognition and character skills such as collaboration, communication, and critical-thinking. A project can also fulfil an educational purpose if students conduct a real-life inquiry, rather than finding information in textbooks or online. In projects with real-life application, students follow a trail that begins with their own questions, leads to a search for resources and the discovery of answers, and often ultimately leads to generating new questions, testing ideas, and drawing their own conclusions. With real-life projects comes innovation – a new answer to a big question, a new product, or an individually generated solution to a problem.

A project can also fulfil an educational purpose if it makes learning meaningful by emphasising the need to create high-quality products and performances through the formal use of feedback and drafting. As part of project-based learning, students learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high-quality outcomes. Instead, frequent revision is a feature of real-world work. In addition to providing direct feedback, the teacher can coach students in using rubrics and other sets of assessment criteria in order for students to critique each other’s work.

Finally, a project can fulfil an educational purpose if it ends with a product being presented to a real audience. Work is more meaningful when it is produced not only for the teacher or the test, but for a real public audience. This makes students care more about the quality of their work.

Planning a project

When planning a project, it is crucial that the topic is worthy of students’ time and effort and will retain their interest over the medium-term. It is also important that it will deliver sufficient curriculum content to be worthy of its timetabled commitment.

When selecting a topic, the teacher should begin with the syllabus’s programmes of study and select an area that will intrigue and interest students. The next step is to set out objectives for the project and to plan the activities. The teacher should choose a curriculum-based theme for which background knowledge will already have been developed prior to the project starting, because students will need to bring a strong background of experience and knowledge with them.

The teacher should consider whether or not the theme presents sufficient opportunities to engage all students in the class, including males and females, the highly motivated as well as those who require a lot of encouragement, and the more able as well as those who require more support and scaffolding.

If using project-based learning for the first time, the teacher should try to limit the scope of the project in terms of time, topic and end-product, and focus on ensuring the success of all students. The teacher should consider how many product formats they are willing to teach and make sure that students share information in a way that is very simple or very familiar to them.

Running a project

As well as a means of delivering the curriculum, projects help students to acquire and develop research and employability skills. This works best when project-based learning is integrated within the curriculum, is taught with a focus on developing critical-thinkers, is made relevant to students’ lives and needs, and is related to their past experiences.

As students work through the project, the teacher – by employing a personalised approach – helps students to locate, analyse and use the information they find, assists students to clarify their thinking through questioning, paraphrasing and talking through tasks, provides students with opportunities to record information, and evaluates students’ progress.

Broadly speaking, there are five main phases to a project.

Phase 1

Piquing curiosity and agreeing key questions for investigation: Project-based learning begins with piquing students’ interest in or curiosity about a topic. It is a big question that begs an answer, a hypothesis that demands to be proven or disproven, a puzzle that simply must be solved. For those students with little or no background knowledge of a topic, teachers need to provide information and contextual knowledge in order to motivate students. Once students are interested and engaged in a general topic or theme, they need to be involved in determining what particular questions will be investigated, how they might find the information they need about a particular topic, how to present information to a particular audience, and what criteria for evaluating their research product and process might best be used.

Phase 2

Assimilating existing knowledge and gathering new evidence: Next, students need to think about the information they already have on the topic and agree the information they need to find and how best to gather that information. Students may need to spend a considerable amount of time exploring and analysing the information they have and they gather in order to determine their key focus for the project. Teachers often need to help students understand that the information they find, whether in a book, newspaper or on the internet, was created by people with particular beliefs and purposes and that, therefore, the information is likely to be subjective rather than objective. As such, it is important to teach students to be able to identify emotive language and bias.

Phase 3

Finding a focus: Next, students will find a focus for their project. A focus is the aspect of a topic that, armed with all the information they need, the student decides to investigate. Coming to a focus can be very difficult for students because it involves more than just narrowing the scope of the topic. It also involves agreeing a big question or hypothesis, perhaps offering a personal perspective, too.

Phase 4

Organising and sharing information: Students then need to organise the information they have gathered, putting the information into their own words and creating a presentation – using their preferred format perhaps. Once the presentation is ready, it should be shared, ideally with a real audience outside the classroom. Teaching students audience appreciation skills and strategies, focusing on the positive, helps to support students through this phase.

Phase 5

Evaluating the project: When a research project is complete, students need to understand and question the assessment criteria, to identify the various steps in their project process, and to share their feelings about that process. Students should be able to articulate the importance of this work in terms of how it has helped them develop their metacognitive skills, and they should be able to see connections between their project work in school and work or activities that they have completed outside of school.

Assessing a project

When designing projects, teachers need to plan for on-going assessments and these assessments should take three forms: diagnostic, formative and summative.

Diagnostic assessment is used to find out which metacognitive skills and strategies students already know and can use at the start of a project, which can then be built on during the project. Areas of weakness and difficulty can also be targeted at this stage to help plan direct instruction during the project. Diagnostic assessments also help teachers to recognise when personalised or differentiated instruction may be necessary for certain students.

Formative assessment is critical in the planning of project-based learning activities. On-going formative assessment helps teachers to identify the development of students’ skills and strategies and to monitor students’ planning, retrieving, processing and creating skills during research activity. This on-going assessment allows teachers to modify instruction, adapt the project activity and support students with special instructional needs.

Summative assessment is carried out at the end of the project in order to provide information to students, parents and teachers about progress and achievement. This type of assessment helps the teacher and the students to plan for further projects. Summative assessment assesses both the content and the process of the project.

Project assessments should involve students in identifying and/or creating the criteria used to evaluate the work and this criteria should be communicated before students begin tasks so that they understand what is expected of them. Project assessments should form part of an on-going process rather than be regarded as an isolated event, and should focus on both process and product. Assessments should also provide opportunities for students to revise their work, enabling them to set goals and improve their learning by providing a status report on how well students can demonstrate their learning and progress at any one time.

Assessment feedback should be developmentally and age-appropriate, and should consider students’ cultural and individual needs. Assessment data should take into account multiple sources of evidence (both formal and informal) and provide opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do.

Project-learning process summary

  • Students select a topic to research within the parameters set by the teacher.
  • Students develop and support a position or point of view, this may be a big question that needs answering or a hypothesis that needs proving or disproving.
  • Students relate their existing knowledge and understanding of their topic and identify any gaps and areas that require further study.
  • Students conduct research in order to develop an in-depth understanding. This may include using textbooks, the internet, and conducting interviews. Students are taught the relevant research skills as well as codes of ethics and confidentiality as appropriate.
  • Students record information using the most appropriate note-taking strategies.
  • Students carefully select and evaluate key information from a variety of sources.
  • Students create a report or presentation based on guidelines developed in the planning phase and in response to the needs and interests of the intended audience.
  • Students use technology as appropriate in order to enhance their presentations and reports.
  • Students share their final report/project with larger groups, with other classes, in the community and/or with family.
  • The teacher identifies and shares the evaluation criteria for the process and the product.
  • Students are involved in setting evaluation criteria for the process and the product.
  • Students provide appropriate self-evaluation and peer evaluation of the final product and the inquiry process.
  • Students monitor and adapt their own inquiry skills and strategies during the process.
  • Students share their feelings and progress each class.
  • Teacher monitors progress at the end of each class.
  • Students talk about what went well and what was challenging.

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